Mr Frist seemed to take a moderate tack in the culture wars. In his 1989 book “Transplant” (part memoir, part cri de coeur about organ transplants) he was resolutely scientific rather than theological on the question of when life begins and ends. He even recommended changing the legal definition of “brain death” to make it easier to harvest the organs of anencephalic babies (who are born with a fatal neurological disorder but show signs of mental activity). Social conservatives fiercely resisted his elevation to the Senate leadership.
But look at him now. One moment Fristy is leading the congressional charge into the Terri Schiavo case, masterminding a bill to give federal courts jurisdiction over the case, and “diagnosing” Ms Schiavo as being conscious on the basis of watching a video and talking to a neurologist who had not seen her for two years. The next he is threatening “the nuclear option”—changing the Senate's rules to stop Democrats filibustering judicial nominees. On April 24th he was a speaker—albeit by videotape—at a Christian rally at which the “oligarchs” of the Supreme Court were denounced as “unelected and unaccountable, arrogant and imperious, determined to redesign the culture according to their own biases and values.”
Why has Mr Frist thrown in his lot with the religious right? It is possible that he has enjoyed a private conversion. But the more likely explanation is that an intensely ambitious man desperately wants to be president. At his young gentleman's academy in Nashville, his nicknames were “Mr President”, “Precious” and “Wilbur”; at Princeton, Harvard Medical School and the Stanford University Medical Centre, he was a super-achiever, so keen on practising surgery that he even adopted stray cats from Boston shelters for the sole purpose of dissecting them. And now he is in the Senate—a club whose inhabitants think about becoming president as often as normal humans think about sex.
Mr Frist seems to have made two calculations. The first is that you cannot win the Republican nomination unless you have “people of faith” on your side. The second is that such people are very angry. They thought that the 2004 election, with its clean sweep of the White House, the House of Representatives and the Senate, would allow them to roll back secular liberalism. But they find themselves blocked on every front: by a liberal press that is intent on destroying their champions, such as (Saint) Tom DeLay; by the Democratic minority, which is using every trick in the book to block their agenda; and by an activist judiciary, which seems impervious to the will of the people.
Both these calculations are absolutely right, but they are hardly risk-free—as the filibuster debate shows. Mr Frist's natural constituency—business conservatives—already worry that the filibuster fuss will distract attention from things like trade liberalisation and litigation reform. The stakes will soon get higher. If Mr Frist's nuclear strategy fails, he risks disappointing the religious right, emboldening the Democrats and trashing his reputation as an efficient majority leader. If he succeeds, he risks throwing the Senate into turmoil, alienating moderate voters, and stoking up the appetite of the religious right to move on to something else (like overturning Roe v Wade).